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Culture

Art meets industry at Ruhrtriennale 2012

Performance artists, musicians and opera directors from around the world come together at the annual Ruhrtriennale, in the heart of Germany's industrial region, to stage breathtaking productions.

A choreographer and politician from Samoa is accompanied by dancers from his homeland, actors, singers and musicians, all in the capacious power center of a former steel works in Duisburg. In Essen there is an exhibition encompassing living people as artworks, due to travel to Sydney and Moscow.

In Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle, 17 French children dance with machines. And on a slag heap in Bottrop, the Japanese band Boredoms beat away into the night with drummers from the Ruhr region.

It's all part of this year's Ruhrtriennale, the theater festival housed in the industrial monuments of the Ruhr region. Since 2002, a multitude of extraordinary international personalities from the arts have gathered here on a yearly basis. Only one thing has remained absent: theater as we know it. 

Spirituality and social criticism

Pictured here, Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle, one location where the Ruhrtriennnale is taking place.

No place quite like it: Industrial monuments meet contemporary art at the Ruhrtriennale

The room is vast: 170 meters long (560 feet) and 35 meters wide. Electricity was once generated in the power center here, as well as wind for the blast furnaces of the coal-fired power plant, but the colossal space is now empty.

The halls and slag heaps, the collieries and the coking plants of the Ruhr region, serve as gigantic propositions for the artists who work in them. Their imposing auras must be offset with equally powerful images and ideas.

Lemi Ponifasio confronts the gigantic space. He is a politician from the island of Samoa off the coast of New Zealand. He's often described as a "chieftain," but that's a word he doesn't like to hear.

Far from the various European understandings of art, Ponifasio developed a form of dance theater closely tied to nature. "People take themselves far too seriously," he said. He has created an opera about a god who stands side-by-side with the people.

Carl Orff, known for "Carmina Burana," composed his opera based on the ancient Greek Aeschylus' "Prometheus." But Onifasio did not want to illustrate the story that the work tells. With his dancers, he has developed his own scenes to Orff's music.

Alongside German actors, there are, above all, dancers from Ponifasio's home country - people he has known for a long time. "I only work with people I would spend the rest of my life with," he said.

Pictured here is a snapshot of Lemi Ponifasio's adaptation of 'Prometheus' for the Ruhrtriennale which includes Samoan dancers.

Lemi Ponifasio's adaptation of 'Prometheus' includes Samoan dancers

The lightness of nothingness

Normal theater with complicated characters and a plot cannot be found at the Ruhrtriennale. The beginning of the festival is characterized by the work of John Cage, the composer and philosopher of emptiness and nothingness.

The opening production is comprised of the first two parts of Cage's "Europeras." The American composer fragmented opera into its component parts: arias, orchestral music, set designs, costumes, and the gestures of singers.

Cage left the coming together of these various elements to chance, to the Chinese oracle I Ching, to be precise. Multiple arias would be sung together; stage sets would be built and deconstructed again. The singers would wear costumes that didn't line up with their roles. It sounds like chaos but, surprisingly, the musical jumble often sounded harmonious, as if composed in a particular musical key.

Before the eyes of the audience, 32 assistants build a temple, a palazzo, and a magical forest. Large stones role on the stage and the chandeliers swings from the ceiling. What was perhaps planned as the annihilation of opera becomes a loving bow to it. All of the performances are sold out, and each one is bound to be thoroughly discussed afterwards.

Many of the participating artists come to the Ruhr region for a month or two to rehearse. American star director Robert Wilson is only around for a few days, bringing John Cage's "Lecture on Nothing" to the stage at breakneck speed - an evening about nothingness, experimental literature and spoken music.

Wilson, who often performs with mask-like expressions and time-loop movements, has already appeared at the Ruhrtriennale. The atmosphere in the performance locations attracts him.

His readings on a stage covered in newspapers are surprisingly light and spontaneous. Wilson, 70, reacts to coughing spectators, winks at the audience, and acts like an entertainer - even though the piece is based on pure philosophy, the beauty of silence, life in the moment, and the abandonment of possessions in attaining emancipation.

"The text can be funny, tense, loud and aggressive, light and soothing," gushed Robert Wilson in his dressing room immediately after the performance. "One can make so much out of nothing."

Pictured here, a scene from John Cage's Europeras 1 and 2

One of the most highly observed productions at this year's Ruhrtriennale: John Cage's "Europeras 1 and 2"

The impolite look

We are taught as children not to stare at other people. But if we could - or maybe if we were invisible - then perhaps we would. At the Live Art Group Show in Essen's Museum Volkwang, it's possible to do just that. Visitors are prompted to stare at the people waiting for an audience in 12 different rooms. They're living artworks.

"12 Rooms" is a combination of art and theater which has already been staged in Manchester and after the Ruhrtriennale is set to travel to Sydney, Moscow and further afield.

Heiner Goebbels, the new director of the Ruhrtriennale 2012

Director Heiner Goebbels would like visitors to create their own adventures

What happens in the 12 rooms depends entirely on the visitor. Standing at a distance, one can see puzzling images: a naked woman, for example, intensely studying her body with a handheld mirror, or a young man who stares into a corner - a work by Spanish conceptual artist Santiago Sierra entitled "Veterans from wars in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia and Somalia facing the corner."

The two internationally operating curators Klaus Biesenbach and Hans-Ulrich Obrist have put together an exciting show involving many prominent artists. Among them is British artist Damien Hirst, for example, who has placed pairs of identically clothed identical twins under slightly differing squares with colorful dots.

One of the more impressive rooms has been created by the Puerto Rican artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. It houses a human revolving door; 10 young people hold hands and turn through the room, stopping and changing direction. Whoever stands in their way will be pushed or pulled along. People become a merciless machine which nobody switches off. Resistance is futile.

The Ruhrtriennale, which runs through September 30, presents itself as an adventure for all the senses. The new director, Heiner Goebbels, is hoping for a "mature audience," who do not allow themselves to be lead by stories or interpretations but instead create their own adventures.

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